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Harper, Robert (1842–1919)

by Peter Cook

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Robert Harper (1842-1919), by unknown photographer, 1900s

Robert Harper (1842-1919), by unknown photographer, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24213592

Robert Harper (1842-1919), businessman and politician, was born on 1 February 1842 in Glasgow, Scotland, son of Robert Harper, merchant, and his wife Elizabeth, née Calderwood, and elder brother of Andrew Harper. Educated at Glasgow Academy until 13, Robert was employed in Glasgow until he migrated to Melbourne with his family in August 1856. He worked for J. F. McKenzie & Co., roasting and grinding millers, and became a partner about 1863. In 1865 the partnership was dissolved and Harper established Robert Harper & Co., trading in tea, coffee and spices from the East Indies and later in oatmeal and flour.

The business prospered; the firm established a factory to process and package its goods and also large rice-dressing mills. By the mid-1870s Harper was a leading Melbourne merchant. His brother William became a partner and another brother John joined them about 1883. Branches were established in Sydney (1877), Adelaide (1882), Brisbane (1887) and later in the other colonies including New Zealand.

From the mid-1870s Harper diversified, investing in banking, land, sugar, coal and timber. President of the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures in 1877-78, he was regarded as one of the most astute businessmen of his day and, although he caught the speculative fever of the late 1880s, his business acumen and caution were such that his integrity and fortune remained intact in the collapses of the early 1890s. He was a long-standing director of the Kauri Timber Co. (chairman in 1890-94), of several insurance companies and of the Commercial Bank of Australia. He also owned a sheep-station, Dhurringhile, in Gippsland.

On 21 January 1868 at Chalmers' Church, East Melbourne, Harper married Jane Ballingall, youngest daughter of Rev. Dr Cairns. His wife, credited with a keen sense of humour and a love of dancing, bore him seven children and became a prominent Melbourne philanthropist. At her death in 1924 she had been president of The Spinners for thirty-three years and of the Ministering Children's League for twenty-six; she had also held high office in the Young Women's Christian Association, the Free Kindergarten Union and the Ladies' Work Association.

Harper was a founder of the Toorak Presbyterian Church and its senior elder. His firmly held religious beliefs strongly influenced the manner of his business dealings and his political and social attitudes. He took a strong stand against the secularization of state schools; he opposed the Sunday opening of the National Gallery; in the early 1880s he took a prominent part in the schism in his Church over the liberal theological views of Dr Charles Strong; and in 1883 he and others purchased the Daily Telegraph and the Weekly Times as avenues for their strict views on social issues.

Harper took no part in politics until 1878 when his alarm at the radical Berry government and the events leading up to 'Black Wednesday' led him in February 1879 to contest a by-election for the Legislative Assembly seat of West Bourke where he had a country house at Mount Macedon and was a shire councillor. His opponent, Alfred Deakin, was successful by a narrow margin but after a heated dispute about irregularities at one polling booth Deakin resigned the seat and in a second contest in August Harper defeated him. Berry's controversial constitutional reform bill was subsequently defeated by one vote, with Harper voting against, after which parliament was dissolved. In the ensuing election in February 1880 Harper again defeated Deakin, but the verdict was reversed in an election next August. In his memoir of these four contests Deakin said of Harper that he was a man 'with means, some leisure, and good natural capacity … A man of keen intelligence, well-informed on political questions, of strong character, great persistency, marked resoluteness and untiring energy'.

Harper won the seat of East Bourke in 1882 and held it until 1889. He was re-elected in 1891, the year in which the first Labor member was elected to the assembly and the Progressive Political League of Victoria established. Harper was prominent among those Melbourne merchants who founded in July the National Association of Victoria with the object of unifying the non-Labor groups to resist the agent of 'class politics' and the party of 'anarchy'. The Labor threat, however, was short-lived and the association subsided to continue through the 1890s as a platform to rally the Conservatives against the Liberals. In 1894 Harper sat on the royal commissions on constitutional reform and state banking.

Harper was defeated in the election of September 1897 but in 1901 won, and held in three later elections, the seat of Mernda in the House of Representatives. He was now a Protectionist, and a follower of Deakin; otherwise his deeply conservative, inflexible outlook remained unchanged. R. A. Crouch observed that a droop in his eye and an 'almighty style' gave him a supercilious air. In 1909-10 Harper was the successful defendant in a bitter lawsuit with Rev. J. B. Ronald who sued him for slander over a charge of improper language ('dirty talk', Crouch called it) in parliament.

Harper believed that men were not equal, that enterprise and industry should be rewarded with special privileges and that 'natural economic laws' should be allowed to operate without restriction. However his switch from the free-trade to the protectionist camp called forth the accusation that his main political principle was that of whatever ensured maximum profit. It was because of his attitudes, as much as his devotion to business, that although an able debater and a competent politician he never became a minister. Nevertheless he was a respected figure in the Victorian and Commonwealth parliaments and a power in his party.

Harper retired from parliament in 1913 and died at his home in South Yarra on 9 January 1919. Survived by his wife, one of his two daughters and four of his five sons, he was buried in Boroondara cemetery. His estate in Australia was valued for probate at £175,239 and left to his family.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • Victorian Law Reports, 1909
  • British Australasian, 28 July 1910
  • Industrial Australian and Mining Standard, 16 Jan 1919
  • Retailer of Queensland, 26 Mar 1962
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 28 Aug 1891
  • Punch (Melbourne), 4 June 1908, 16 May 1912, 21 July 1921
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10 Jan 1919
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 26 July 1924
  • Crouch memoirs (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Peter Cook, 'Harper, Robert (1842–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/harper-robert-6572/text11305, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 22 February 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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